A little over a month ago, my family sat on a plane for hours and landed bright and early in Taipei, Taiwan. The last time I had visited Taiwan was probably 3 to 4 years ago. I’ve never actually lived in Taiwan but somehow, it is so familiar and welcoming. My parents grew up in Taipei and, clearly, the culture of Taiwan was strong enough to influence not only them but the way they raised me as well.
I spent the week staying with my grandparents in the home that my mother grew up in. We ate all of the foods I love, wandered to many of the stores I remember and passed buildings that looked familiar. Seeing all the laundry hanging from the balconies and the mopeds owning the roads emphasized my return. I was back, thank goodness. It really had been too long.
The best part was, of course, the food—especially the breakfast foods. There’s a dish called shao bing you tiao. It’s all carbs, no vegetables or meat in sight. Just baked, crispy, flaky bread wrapped around a stick of fried dough and, let me tell you, it is delicious. I will, literally, have dreams about it. Having it for breakfast, with a cup of cold soy milk, was the welcome back that I had been looking for and will forever expect when I land in Taipei.
And then there’s fan tuan. This is rice wrapped around the fried dough and you can have it salty or sweet. I’ve always preferred salty and savory foods so I only eat the salty version though I’m sure the sweet one has its merits. Thankfully, we were able to fit that in for a breakfast as well.
While it was amazing to return to eating all the foods I remember that simply beat out all the competition in the States (though if you’re craving some and you’re in the New York City area, I would recommend hunting in Flushing) it was the unfamiliar that emphasized how Taipei isn’t home and that as much as I love it, I am an American just as much; an ABC (American Born Chinese).
I should probably clear up some confusion before I continue though. I am ethnically Chinese but I consider myself, culturally, Taiwanese. Before this trip back, I had never set foot in China and Taiwan is the country that raised my parents and comforted my grandparents. There is some blending of Chinese history and tradition, yes, but there are definitely clear differences between the two. And, trust me, my family and I are definitely far more Taiwanese than Chinese. Thus, I am an ABC who prefers Taiwan.
Growing up in the States, being exposed to American food (and American versions of other foods), means that I tend to be taller than the average Taiwanese woman. And my face is shaped differently; it tends to be less flat. The rumor is that it can be explained because many American babies are taught to sleep on their sides unlike Taiwanese babies who are taught to sleep on their back. I walk with a longer stride and hold myself with a different attitude. My style is different and despite the many conversations my sister and I had on the topic, what exactly defines them is, well, indefinable. But a difference there is.
Of course, there’s also the language barrier for me. I am able to understand Mandarin but have difficulty reading or writing it as that’s not something that’s necessary in everyday conversation. Speaking it is something I can do but after being teased about it by both family and friends, it’s something I am not confident about at all. And as welcoming and comforting as returning to Taipei was, this trip emphasized that unless I became fluent in Mandarin, I would find living in Taipei extremely awkward.
After four days reacquainting myself with a city that I will always love, I have learned that it is a city to visit and miss but it is not home. I am a New Yorker, an Asian American. Blending the two cultures is something I’ve done for my whole life because of the immigrant communities nearby and in Flushing, Queens but something I would struggle to do in Taipei. And so, despite never living in Taiwan, it feels like an old hometown that I’ve outgrown but will romanticize forever.